Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

12/19/2008 (6:45 am)

Those Who Make the Hard Decisions

Watch the video, above, from a few days ago, in which Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledges that he was consulted concerning the procedure for questioning Khalid Sheik Muhammed.

I got engaged in a conversation with a progressive about Barack Obama’s habitual lying and his possible involvement in Gov. Rod Blogojevich’s Senate seat auction, and the fellow pointed to this event and suggested that I was focused on fairly ordinary human failings when there was significant evil afoot. The man is a Christian, and accused me of “straining at gnats, and swallowing camels;” for those of you not familiar with the New Testament, he’s quoting Jesus’ indictment of religious hypocrites from a sect called the Pharisees, and accusing me of a pretty serious moral failure. It led me to ruminate for a day or two, prayerfully, over what we mean when we use the word “evil,” and how it applies to national leaders. Joe, if you’re reading this, please understand that I did not take your challenge lightly at all, nor is this a reflexive response; but you’re wrong.

Progressives around the country are practically exploding because Vice President Cheney acknowledged that he was involved in the discussion regarding what could and could not be done to the terrorists in custody in order to discover what they knew about al Qaeda’s plans and operations. The discussions were carried out according to the law of the land, with oversight by the appropriate Congressmen, and the program of interrogation was approved, waterboarding and all. Cheney observes correctly that the Bush administration has achieved remarkable success in preventing further attacks against the US by terrorists, once having been delivered a cataclysmic wake-up call on Sept. 11, 2001.

Did the approved procedure include acts that could properly be called evil? I think so.

Harry Truman, as President, ordered men to fly over a foreign city in an airplane and throw an object out of the plane that immediately incinerated the entire city — men, women, children, pets, dolls, hairbrushes, taxicabs, everything burned to a crisp. Thousands of survivors died of horrible diseases in the aftermath, and were continuing to die for about the next 25 years. Truman did this twice. He decorated the individuals who performed this act on his behalf, raising them to hero status.

Was that evil? Ignore the context for the moment, and just look at the act. Was it evil? I hope there’s no question about it. It was an unspeakable evil. Angels wept. So did millions of men and women around the globe. It was so stark an evil that succeeding generations have bent themselves into pretzels to make sure such a thing never happens again. Allow yourselves to feel the enormity of it for a moment.

Franklin Roosevelt, as President, engaged in the planning of acts that included things like this: an American man walked up to a concrete building full of men on the beach in France, stuck a pipe into the room and filled it with jellied gas, and then lit the gas, burning the men slowly and painfully to death (think flame-throwers and concrete bunkers.) Was that evil? If you didn’t think so, I would think you were not civilized.

Abraham Lincoln had somewhat less advanced technology to work with. He planned events that included Americans running up to other Americans on American soil, screaming like banshees, and jamming 18-inch-long stakes of sharpened metal through the other man’s body, causing the victim to die slowly of internal injuries over the next several hours (think of a bayonet charge.) Was that evil? Of course it was. When I think about things like this, I thank God — seriously — that I’ve never had to do such a thing to another man.

Adding the context does not necessarily help, especially if you’re trying to make it sound monstrous. Lincoln ordered this atrocity a hundred thousand times over, simply to prevent several states from carrying out a political decision they had every right to make. He had no Constitutional authority to prevent the southern states from leaving the Union. He ordered men by the hundreds of thousands to burn, pillage, stab, shoot, pulverize, route, and imprison other Americans simply to prevent a political divorce. We celebrate his birthday because he did that. Roosevelt ordered those millions of atrocious acts to stop one European leader from coercing other European leaders. The Germans never attacked us directly, nor were they any sort of immediate threat to us; we could easily have let the Europeans settle their own disputes, and made a treaty with Hitler to keep him on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Truman ordered his atrocity to avoid the unpleasantness of invading another country’s homeland. We could have blockaded them, and continued to engage their vanishing navy indefinitely, rather than incinerate hundreds of thousands of civilians.

It’s easy to make these things sound monstrous because, in fact, they are monstrous. War itself is evil. Never mind the necessity; God weeps when men go to war. The suffering produced by human violence, even violence justified by political necessity, creates an eternal weight of shame so great that God, Himself, had to suffer and die to atone for it. And even among those men whom God accepted, the Old Testament records that God would not permit King David to build a temple for Him because David was a man of war, and had too much blood on his hands. God does not take war lightly.

We do things inside ourselves to accommodate these evil acts, because at some level we believe the causes in which they were committed were just. We elevate the moral necessity of protecting our homes and families. We recognize our obligation to serve the nation that protects our liberties and permits our prosperity. We erect elaborate moral constructs to ennoble liberating enslaved or oppressed fellow-humans in other countries, and imagine that we hope they would do the same for us if our roles were reversed. Soldiers who have served in combat sometimes testify that they committed their unspeakable acts of violence mostly to honor their brotherhood to the man standing next to them. Is this enough? As a civilization, and possibly to our eternal shame, we believe that it is.

For the men at the time of the Civil War, there was a national covenant before God that made the preservation of the Union worth fighting for. We may not understand that sense of urgency from our modern point of view, but we can honor their commitment and devotion (no, the Civil War was not fought to abolish slavery; that was a military tactic and a side effect.) We certainly understand, from our modern point of view, the corrosive evil that Nazi Germany represented, and do not regret the atrocious acts we committed attempting to free the world from that terror (and, yes, American servicemen committed acts like waterboarding, and worse.) The Japanese did, in fact, threaten and attack us, and needed to be pushed back. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably prevented an invasion that would have resulted in casualties numbered in the millions.

None of this eliminates the evil of the acts committed in the pursuit of those ends. Sometimes we call on our Presidents, Vice Presidents, Congressmen, or Secretaries of Defense to engage in evil acts on our behalf, or to order us to commit evil acts. Sometimes it’s necessary. That’s part of living in a fallen world. Ultimately, we permit such evil in order to prevent even greater evils from occurring. As Ernest Hemingway once observed, there are worse things than war, and they happen after defeat.

If Dick Cheney, or any other American for that matter, engaged in acts of cruelty solely for the sake of enjoying the cruelty — if, say, they ordered that Khalid Sheik Muhammed’s fingers be cut off with a pruning shear just because they did not like him — I would want them punished severely. There’s never any reason for sadistic pleasure; schadenfreude is deep sin. That’s not what happened, though. Allowing fierce interrogation of prisoners, as part of a larger program of interrogation aimed at preventing Muslim radicals from hijacking airplanes full of civilians and flying them into buildings, I regard as a sensible part of the conduct of war. Yes, it’s evil. War is evil. I wish we didn’t have to do it, but the 1990s showed us what would happen if we avoided the evil of war; we suffered an escalating pattern of violence against ourselves that was only going to get worse. Those of us who read history recall the Muslim invasions of Europe and North Africa, and recognize that what we’re facing is not so different from what they faced. We’re protecting our homes and our civilization.

There are those tender-hearted souls among us who cannot make themselves watch the horrors of war, and who lack the inner fortitude to do the necessary things to protect home, country, virtue, or humanity from the corrosive evils that attack us. Rep Jane Harmon (D, CA) was the only Congressperson to object to the program of interrogation outlined by the CIA during the legal evaluation of the War on Terror; she is one of those tender-hearted persons, and she has my respect for her stand of conscience. There are others who, out of religious conviction from traditions that condemn violence, refuse to participate in the conduct of war. There must remain a place among us for those whose soul or conscience cannot stand the violence necessary for sound national defense. These people are honorable.

Most of those who are calling Dick Cheney “evil,” however, are not honorable in this fashion. On the contrary; they participated in an 8-year-long, full-throated, whole-hearted attempt to make every ordinary act of governance seem criminal. The biblical name for this behavior is “perverting justice,” and I cannot respect the moral sense of anyone who regards such wholesale perversion of justice as small potatoes. Their goal was partisan; some wanted power or office for Democratic politicians, others wanted to persuade the culture to abandon the Western tradition of virtue in order to produce a different world. Theirs is not conscientious objection; on the contrary, theirs is an act of bald treason. They deliberately, knowledgeably, and systematically, by means of propaganda, attempted to cause our nation to be defeated morally and politically before our enemies in the eyes of the world. They defend their treason by pretending they belong to the group I described in the last paragraph, but they lie; they are as different from those honorable people as night is from day. They are our enemies, and in a sane world, they would be punished.

I honestly don’t know to which group the fellow belongs with whom I was holding the discussion. I hope for his sake that it’s the former, and not the latter. I simply know that there’s no shame, nor sin, in defending the hard decisions leaders have to make in order to protect a nation from its enemies. Sometimes their decisions result in armies committing acts of violence that make the angels weep. Sometimes they make mistakes. Always, the innocent suffer. War is a horrible thing; but wars are fought among men, and not only should we honor the men who have to fight them, we should honor the leaders who surrender their clear consciences to make the hard decisions during those wars. Attempting to make criminals of them perverts justice, and endangers us all.

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